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Early Modern English pronouns

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain grammar – here specifically pronouns – and how Shakespeare was able to exploit it.
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In this talk, we examine a particular kind of noun, the pronoun. What are pronouns? The clue is in the label. The prefix “pro” comes from Latin and means “for” or “on behalf of.” A pronoun stands in for a noun. For example, if I say, give it to me, “it” might be standing in for the pen I want and “me” might be standing in for Jonathan Culpeper. This is not, however, going to be a talk about all the different pronouns in Shakespeare. As usual, we are selecting key areas of interest. Most pronouns in Shakespeare’s time are much as they are now. But this is not true of some personal pronouns, notably the second-person pronouns. Personal pronouns– e.g.
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I, we, you, he, she, it, they– are used to refer to people involved in the speech or writing, including in fictional worlds. Today, the main second person pronoun is the word “you” and its related forms “your” and “yours.” But in Shakespeare’s time, there were two sets of second person pronouns. The you-forms– ye, you, your, yours– and the thou-forms– thou, thy, thine. These are important because they are very frequent and because the choice of pronoun form could make a difference to the meaning. We need a little background to understand what is going on. In Old English– a period of English roughly 400 to 800 years before Shakespeare– the issue was number. Thou-forms reflected a singular addressee, and you-forms, plural addresses.
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This is not so far removed from some dialects today, which have plural forms like yous and yins to address more than one person. In Middle English, ME, starting roughly 400 years before Shakespeare, you-forms changed their usage and could be used as a marker of courtesy for a singular addressee, not totally unlike, for example, tu and vous in French today. The rough pattern of usage displayed in the table developed. The you-forms might be used to people who were social superiors or amongst people of equally high status. The thou-forms might be used to social inferiors and between people of equally low status. However, by the time we get to Early Modern English, the situation was much more fluid.
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There is something of a general pattern in that the you-forms were relatively normal, more frequent, and less marked, less salient. However, there were a number of minor patterns. Thou could be used as a put-down. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s character, Sir Toby Belch, offers Andrew Auguecheek advice on how to write a provocative challenge, “Taunt him with the licence of ink, if thou thou’st him some thrice, it shall not be amiss.” But thou could also be a marker of intimacy and affection. For example, it is used by Romeo and Juliet. Generally, thou was a marker of emotion.
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Perhaps the crucial thing to note in this period is that characters were not sticking to a consistent pattern in their own speech to a particular addressee but shifting from one pronoun to another in order to generate some particular meaning. One famous example is in the opening scene of King Lear where Lear addresses his daughters. He starts with thou for his first two daughters, presumably indicating some kind of intimacy. However, he switches to you for his favourite daughter, Cordelia, thereby indicating a particular intimacy and affection. When she doesn’t play the game, he switches back to thou. So in this talk, we started with general comments on grammar, stressing the importance of grammar in creating meanings and explaining creativity.
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The focus was on nouns. We started with the issue of marking the plural, especially the s-plural marker. We noted some irregularities, irregularities that belonged to an earlier era. Although some such archaic forms– whether a noun endings or something else– are not particularly frequent, Shakespeare deploys them strategically to help the metre, to create older characters, and to create certain styles, such as love talk. Briefly, we touched on the marking of possession through the s-genitive, expressed as the apostrophe-s, and noted that this was not regularly used in Shakespeare’s time to mark possession in writing. Finally, we discussed the knotty area of second-person pronouns, you-forms and thou-forms, especially how they can shift dynamically to indicate social relations and feelings.
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In the next talk, we will be turning to verbs.

Pronouns are little words but have big consequences! One of the reasons for that is that pronouns refer to people involved in the speech or writing, including in the fictional worlds of literary texts.

The second person pronoun “you”, and its related forms, is particularly important in connecting speakers with others, but was additionally important in Shakespeare’s time because there was an additional set of second person pronouns revolving around “thou”.

The choice between these two sets had implications for meaning. Huge quantities of research have attempted to understand those meanings inside Shakespeare and outside. Generally speaking, “you” forms were relatively normal – more frequent and less marked, less salient. “Thou” forms do seem to conform to a number of minor patterns, including their use in condescending to someone, but it is very difficult to generalise. What is particularly important is when the character suddenly shifts from one form to another, as indeed King Lear does with his daughters at the beginning of the play.

Have you noted “thou” forms in Shakespeare before? What did you assume that they meant? Have you ever come across these forms in today’s language (they are actually still used)? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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